Over the Last Limit

Resurrecting Vladimir Mayakovsky
what a poet!
and the clear water is thick

with bloody blows on its head.
I embraced a cloud,
But when I soared
it rained.
—Frank O’Hara, “Mayakovsky” (1954)

In the summer of 1915, Vladimir Mayakovsky paid a call on Maxim Gorky and read him the first draft of his new long poem “A Cloud in Pants.” Its verses initially had been scribbled, so his friends reported, on cigarette boxes. As the Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky recalls, “Aleksey Maksimovich [Gorky] told me that he was stunned and that even a little gray bird hopping on the path ruffled its feathers, cocked its head and still could not bring itself to fly away.”

Gorky himself was to remember the incident rather differently. Shortly after Mayakovsky’s suicide in 1930, he wrote:

I liked his verses and he read very well: he even broke into sobs, like a woman, and this alarmed and disturbed me. He complained that a human being is ‘divided horizontally at the level of the diaphragm.’ When I told him that in my opinion he had a great but probably hard future, and that his talent called for a lot of work, he answered gloomily, ‘I want the future today,’ and again, ‘Without joy I don’t need any future, and I feel no joy.’ He behaved very nervously and was clearly deeply disturbed. He seemed to speak with two voices, in one voice he was a pure lyricist, in the other sharply satirical. It was clear that he was especially sensitive, very talented, and—unhappy.

The sensitive, talented, and unhappy poet was twenty-two years old when he wrote “A Cloud in Pants,” and already a veteran revolutionary. A high school dropout, Mayakovsky survived an eleven-month prison sentence for subversive political acitivities in 1908. Four years later, he helped to formulate the Futurist manifesto A Slap in the Face of Public Taste.

In his reminiscence Gorky emphasizes the personal, but the “disturbance” he refers to guardedly (writing, as he was, at the height of Stalinist repression) was political and cultural as well: it is the subject of one of the great essays written on Mayakovsky, or, for that matter, modernist poetry in general— “On a Generation that Squandered Its Poets,” by the critic Roman Jakobson. Composed by one of the poet’s close friends, who also happened to be the leading Formalist critic-in-exile in the wake of the Revolution, this elegiac essay tries to understand the tragedy that doomed the Russian avant-garde as a whole and Mayakovsky in particular.

Mayakovsky’s first collection of poems, Jakobson reminds us, “was entitled I. [He] is not only the hero of his first play, but his name is the title of that tragedy, as well as of his last collection of poems. The author dedicates his verse ‘to his beloved self.’” He wanted, desperately, to depict man in an all-encompassing way—after the Revolution, the new Soviet man. “But Mayakovsky could directly feel only himself.” And Jakobson echoes Trotsky’s judgment that “our poet . . . populates the squares, the streets, and the fields of the Revolution only with himself.” In the early work, and especially in the love poems to Lili Brik, culminating in Pro Eto (“About This,” 1923), this manic drive produced the most dazzling of images and metaphors, intricately structured in elaborately rhymed stanzas. “The ego of the poet,” says Jakobson paraphrasing Mayakovsky, “is a battering ram, thudding into a forbidden Future; it is a mighty will ‘hurled over the last limit’ toward the incarnation of the Future, toward an absolute fullness of being: ‘one must rip joy from the days yet to come.’”

But how does “I” become the emblem of the new order? And what stands in its way? “Opposed to this creative urge toward a transformed future,” writes Jakobson, “is the stabilizing force of an immutable present, overlaid, as this present is, by a stagnating slime, which stifles life in its tight, hard mold. The Russian name for this element is byt.” There is no corresponding word, Jakobson notes, in the West European languages, where opposition to the status quo was never quite what it was for the poets and artists of the October Revolution. Motionless byt” was Mayakovsky’s enemy: “Slits of byt are filled with fat and coagulate, quiet and wide”; “The swamp of byt is covered over with slime and weeds.” “They come and they come,” notes the poet, describing a Christmas Eve party in Pro Eto, “in timid infinity, / their beards with domestic cobwebs glinting. / Age upon age, / the same old sludge: unwhipped.”

Revolution, in other words, comes to be regarded as a permanent state of excitement, countering the boredom of everyday routine. In “A Cloud in Pants” (1915), freely translated for this new collection by Matvei Yankelevich, the poet promises that when the thorny crown of revolution (which Mayakovsky here places in the year 1916!) comes, bringing out the masses to meet their poet-savior:

I’ll drag out
my soul for you,
stomp it flat,
so that it’s giant!
and, blood-soaked, bestow it—a banner.

The blood-soaked banner echoes the “blood-soaked shred of the heart” in the poem’s opening stanza and relates, as is so often the case in Makayovsky’s poetry, the idea of revolution to death and bodily resurrection. The “infatuation with a wonderful future,” Jakobson observes, goes hand in hand with a “hatred for the evil continuum of specific tomorrows”—tomorrows that only prolong the byt of today. Hence, in a peculiar inversion of Romantic typology, Mayakovsky regards children with fear and suspicion, their very existence pointing to a future when they will be adults, thus challenging the poet’s own sense of himself as eternally young. “I love to watch children dying,” the speaker declares offensively in 1913’s “A Few Words about Myself.” “My reading room is in the streets— / there, so often I’ve leafed through coffin lids.” And, next thing we know, child-murder is transformed into a cosmic theme:

I scream at the bricks,
my frenzied words thrusting a dagger into
the sky’s swollen pulp:
Sun!
My father!
You, at least have some pity! Don’t torture me so!
It is you who have spilled my blood, it runs toward the
horizon!
That is my soul
tufts of a shredded cloud
in the burnt-out sky
over the rusty cross of the bell tower!

Gradually, child-murder is linked to suicide. “Mama!” shouts the poet of “Cloud in Pants,” “Tell my sisters, Lyuda and Olya, / That there’s no way out” (Jakobson’s translation). That motif—there’s no way out—occurs more and more frequently in the later writings, running squarely against the overtly progessivist notions of the Futurists and, in the early 1920s, the LEF (Left Art Front) groups. Increasingly, byt cannot be overcome by declarations of undying love or by grandiose theses on Communism.

In Mayakovsky and his Circle (1940), Shklovsky gives an understated—and therefore all the more terrifying—account of the gradual marginalization and rejection of Mayakovsky by the new literary leadership, despite the success of such propaganda poems as the long “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin” (1924). For the new Proletcultists, Shklovsky recalls, “The very concept of creative art was put between quotes.” And again, “Now, imagine for a moment the position of the poet. He is at the head of a journal [LEF], and this journal opposes poetry. There was no place for Mayakovsky.” In 1927 the Poets’ Union published a pamphlet that declared: “Mayakovsky’s rhymes are very bad. He is monotonous and writes for the Lumpenproletariat. His free verse is also no good, it offers no poetic opportunities and, besides, it has already been used by Pushkin and Blok.” Mayakovsky, still trying to catapult himself into a meaningful future, joined the Soviet Writers’ Union RAPP, so as to get closer to the workers. “He found himself in a stagnant bay, surrounded on all sides by prohibitions and quotations.” In lines later eliminated from the poem “Homewards” and published in the sixth issue of LEF (1928), Mayakovsky writes:

I want to be understood by my country,
and if I am not—
                                 never mind,
I will pass
                                 over my native land
sideways,
                                 as     a     slanted     rain     passes.

It is this passage, along with “A Cloud in Pants,” that Frank O’Hara alludes to in his acute poem on Mayakovsky. Here, for a brief moment, the Russian poet seems to have understood the futility of revolution. But a few days before his suicide on April 14, 1930, Mayakovsky was still trying to put a good face on Stalin’s recent “reforms.”

For Jakobson, himself one of the Futurist cenacle, Mayakovsky’s longing for the total revolution that would purge the world of byt represented the mood of an entire generation of avant-garde poets that included Sergei Esenin (a suicide in 1925) and Velimir Khlebnikov (who died of starvation in 1922):

We strained toward the future too impetuously and avidly to leave any past behind us. The connection of one period with another was broken. We lived too much for the future, thought about it, believed in it; the news of the day—sufficient unto itself—no longer existed for us. We lost sense of the present. We were the witnesses of and participants in great social, scientific, and other cataclysms. Byt fell behind us, just as in the young Mayakovsky’s splendid hyperbole: ‘One foot has not yet reached the next street.’

***

You will find no part of Jakobson’s essay and only some fairly minor quotes from Shklovsky’s brilliant and short book in Night Wraps the Sky, a medley of writings by and about Mayakovsky. The book’s principle of selection is a mystery to me. The editor, the well-known filmmaker Michael Almereyda, explains it this way in his introduction:

As few English translations of Mayakovsky are currently in print, the chief aim here is to reintroduce the poet to English-speaking readers, stitching together a suitable patchwork of documents, photographs, posters, and other imagery, foregrounding new translations of seminal work. A good many primary sources are extracted from Wiktor Woroszylski’s lovingly researched, definitive choral biography, The Life of Mayakovsky, first published in 1966 and long out of print. (Interested readers are urged to rummage and exhume a copy of this epic work.)

Surely this is the oddest of editorial comments. First, it would be helpful to know something about those Mayakovky translations that are in print: I checked out Patricia Blake’s edition of The Bedbug and Selected Poetry on Amazon.com and found that it is available for $14.95 with next-day delivery. Almereyda obviously knows this since he uses four extracts from Blake’s commentary in Night Wraps the Sky. Indeed, Almereyda’s use of her expository statements—statements not particularly telling—makes the whole situation even odder, as does his inclusion of John Berger’s not especially distinctive essay, “Mayakovsky: His Language and His Death” and Peter Conrad’s short comment on the poet’s second play Mystery-Bouffe. The little description of Mayakovsky: A Tragedy, in my own book, The Futurist Moment (1986), is here reprinted on a single page containing two short paragraphs, the second with a major misprint (three words are omitted) so that it makes no sense.

Even more puzzling is the reference to Woroszylski’s “definitive” biography. If this volume is so important, why not put it back into print, or at least present extracts here, rather than urging readers to exhume it somewhere? Or again, why was Christopher Edgar chosen to write the essay on Mayakovsky’s travels to North America in the mid-twenties? Is Edgar, identified in the acknowledgments as a “gifted writer,” a scholar of Russian? Was this essay written for this collection? Similar questions are raised by Rachel Cohen’s “Some Stage Sets for Mayakovsky” and any number of the other pieces. More importantly, since the book contains only a small selection of the lyric poetry, why these poems and not others? Why extracts from the autobiography I, Myself (1922) but not from The Bedbug?

Indeed, Night Wraps the Sky seems barely edited at all, much less copyedited or proofread. Did no one notice that the extract on page 151 called “The Red Flag and the Red Mask,” taken from Blake’s introduction to Selected Poetry (1960), is dated 1999, or that the first sentence, “Mayakovsky usually managed to retain his originality . . .” is missing its opening qualifier, “In this liberal atmosphere”?

But all is not lost. Night Wraps the Sky is redeemed by three things. First, it offers rare coverage of Mayakovsky’s film work, including the poster for his now-lost 1918 film Not for Money Born in which the poet brandishes the gun with which he later shot himself. Almereyda’s commentary on the role of film in the poet’s career is helpful. Second, the book boasts forty magnificent photographs (among them, some of Alexander Rodchenko’s iconic images) and other illustrations, many of them, like the image of the fourteen-year-old poet’s 1908 registration card in the files of the Okhrana (Secret Police), from the Mayakovsky State Museum in Moscow. Although again poorly documented, the photographs and reproductions make Almereyda’s book worth the price.

Third, and most important, although Night Wraps the Sky includes a disappointingly small selection of poems, it does include new translations by three talented young Russian-Americans now active on the New York poetry scene: Matvei Yankelevich, Val Vinokur, and Katya Apekina. I have already cited Apekina’s “A Few Words About Myself”; her rendition of the propaganda poem “150 Million” and Val Vinokur’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol” (Part II of Pro Eto) create startling verbal effects, given the difficulty of matching Mayakovsky’s sound structures. Vinokur has a racy, idiomatic translation of the famous “An Extraordinary Adventure that Happened to Vladimir Mayakovsky One Summer at a Dacha” (1920), the poem O’Hara recreated so wittily in his “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,” which is reprinted at the back of Night Wraps the Sky.

Yankelevich, whose excellent edition of Daniil Kharms’s writings was published in 2007, gives us a free-wheeling, up-to-date translation of “Cloud in Pants.” Compare the passage from “Cloud,” already mentioned above, to Max Hayward and George Reavey’s earlier version, used in Blake:

Hello
Who’s speaking?
Mamma?
Mamma!
Your son is gloriously ill!
Mamma!
His heart is on fire.
Tell his sisters Lyuda and Olya
he has no nook to hide in.

      (Hayward and Reavey)

Hi!
Who is it?
Mommy?
Mom!
Your son is wonderfully ill!
Mom!
His heart’s on fire.
Tell my sisters, Lyuda and Olya—
he’s done for.

      (Yankelevich)

Yankelevich’s edgy, contemporary street slang is offset by his attention to Mayakovsky’s sound patterns, difficult to simulate in English. Here, for example, is the rendition of fellow Futurist David Burliuk’s poetic credo in Part III of “Cloud”:

How dare you call yourself Poet,
and chirp like a grouse—so dull!
Today
with brass knuckles
you’ve got to
cut open the world in your skull.

which preserves the rhyme lost in Hayward, where line two is “And twitter grayly like a quail.”

All in all, then, this odd Mayakovsky medley does provide new readers with an entry into the world of one of the great twentieth-century poets. There is enough tantalizing material here to make anyone interested in modernist poetry wish for more. Surely a “Collected Poems” is overdue. Akhmatova, Mandelstam: these have been well served by American publishers, and even the difficult zaum poet Khlebnikov has a three-volume Collected Works, translated by Paul Schmidt.

In the meantime, the best way to get at Mayakovsky may well be through the art book facsimiles that have been published. A gorgeous one is the Berlin Ars Nicolai facsimile (1994) of the 1923 Pro Eto (here called “It” but usually translated as “About That”—I would say “This n’ that”). Part recapitulation of his passion for Lili, with whom he had recently split up, part satire on family values as well as the new Soviet bureaucracy, Pro Eto is illustrated by eight Rodchenko photomontages—montages that perfectly capture the spirit of Mayakovsky’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol” and the later sections. In the facsimile, the Russian text is followed by excellent translations into both German and English by Hugo Huppert and Dorian Rottenberg respectively.

A second remarkable artist book is the British Library/MIT Press 2000 three-volume boxed set, For The Voice (Dlia golosa), a reproduction in both Russian and English of El Lissitzky’s brilliantly designed red-and-black thumb-indexed text of Mayakovsky’s 1923 collection of thirteen poems. The third volume, edited by Patricia Railing, features essays and bio-bibliographical materials on both the poetry and Lissitzky’s typography and art work. As Railing’s bibliography makes clear, art historians have long appreciated the importance of the collaboration between poet and painter, but, because of the translation problem, literary interest in this modernist classic has lagged behind. It is high time for a change. In the words of Mayakovsky’s “Listen!”:

Well, if stars
are lit
Doesn’t it mean—there is someone who needs that?

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About the Author

Marjorie Perloff is Sadie D. Patek Professor Emerita of Humanities at Stanford University and is author, most recently, of The Vienna Paradox and Differentials: Poetry, Poetics, Pedagogy.

Marjorie Perloff,
In Defense of Poetry